Posts from the ‘Cooking’ category

Paris When it Sizzles

by Jacob Aldridge

For day 2 of our 3 days in Paris, we start and end in the Montmartre area where we are staying.

In between, we offer five centuries of nudity, and the sweetest Parisian competition imaginable.

Today’s Experience

We’ll power it all with our breakfast and coffee from Boulangerie Coquelicot, on the nearby rue des Abbesses. Scarily, I ordered the regular coffee – and I think I got you the large!

Enjoying a french coffee in Montmartre, Paris France

It’s worth drinking London coffee, just to make French coffee even more magnificent!

Hidden from us but just ten minutes walk away is the Sacre Coeur, the century-old basilica (that’s young!) built atop the highest point of Paris. The cloudless sky means extra heat as we make our way up the hill and through the square of artists offering us caricatures; once we reach the glistening white church we are thankful for the crisp and clear blue morning.

Paris's Basilica Sacre Coeur against a blue sky

Sacre Bleu c’est le Sacre Coeur!

Most people ascend to the Sacre Coeur via the stairs – the streets of Montmartre are a much better option. The grand Romano-Byzantine style makes Sacré-Cœur an impressive construction inside and out; having experience two other churches yesterday, we’re more impressed to note the statue of St Joan of Arc on the exterior façade – and of course to take in both the elevated view and the people-watching.

Did you know Paris has such a power over Japanese love-birds that there is a disease called Paris Syndrome, created when the reality fails to meet the expectations. This article suggests McDonalds as a cure; we suspect that’s the last thing on the mind for this group of wedding brochure photographers.

Asian wedding promotional photo shoot, Sacre Coeur Montmartre Paris France

Not as uncommon a sight as you might think!

We Promised You Nudity

and we plan to deliver, as we head (by Metro this time) to Palais Royal-Musee du Louvre.

If museums bore you, then you need to be aware that you can ‘do’ the Louvre in less than 6 minutes. At least, that’s the tongue-in-cheek world record, where the rules are solely that you have to view the ‘big 3’ – the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, and the Winged Victory of Samothrace.

At the other extreme, of course, it is actually impossible to do the Louvre even across all of the 3 days we have in Paris. Some middle ground must be found – so over the next 2 hours, let’s seize this opportunity to take in those most-famous sights (and the crowds surrounding them) and whatever else takes our eye.

The mostly 'armless Venus de Milo in the Louvre, Paris

Don’t mind Venus, she’s ‘armless! #louvre #dad’sjokes #killmenow

Mona Lisa Up Close and No Crowds Louvre Paris

It is possible to photograph yourself and the Mona Lisa without crowds – just be patient.

Canova's 'Pyche revived by Cupid's kiss in the Louvre, Paris France

A heart for Cupid and Psyche.

The Winged Victory of Samothrace, well lit and shot from below in the Louvre

The Winged Victory of Samothrace – only one wing is original, can you tell which?

There’s more to the Louvre than classical paintings, of course. There’s the Ancient Egyptology

That is a Grand Sphinx!

That is a Grand Sphinx!

and the architecture, both modern and classic

The Louvre's glass pyramid from inside.

The Louvre’s glass pyramid from inside.

With light streaming in to the painted vaulted ceiling, You can see why this is the Palais Louvre.

You can see why this is the Palais Louvre.

and remnants of the medieval fortress, the original construction on the site

A helmet from the Louvre's time as a defensive fortress in Paris

The foundations and moat can also be accessed during your visit.

As for naked ladies and gents? We’ve got plenty of them

Lady looking directly at the naked archer

Follow the lady’s eyeline…hmmm…

Classic. Stylish. Nude. Painting in the Louvre

Classic. Stylish. Nude.

And just when you think you’ve seen enough painting, sculpting, and architecture for this lifetime, we exit the Louvre for a walk through the springtime Jardin des Tuileries.

Face Palm statue in the Jardin des Tuileries, gardens in Paris France

“PANTS! I forgot PANTS!”

The Sweetest Thing

Who has the best macarons in Paris? It’s a question we’ve been asking ourselves since our ‘Feels Like Home in Paris‘ hosts provided a taster set of macarons upon our arrival.

What is a macaron?

What is a macaron? Ganache filled fantasticness!

We ask ourselves again as we head for lunch at Ladurée, the patisserie that’s been serving Parisians (and tourists) sweets for more than 150 years and (in some versions of history) was the site where the macaron was created; the other contenders today are:

  • Pierre Herme: A deserved reputation, and the most popular choice
  • Arnaud Larher: Absinthe macaron defines Montmartre perfection
  • Pierre Marcolini: Better known as a Belgian chocolatier, and my personal selection

Ultimately, the only winner is this competition … is you – as you choose from flavours that can sound more botanic, or floral, or like the inside of a liquor cabinet, than ganache-filled brilliance. And if you can’t choose a winner (even after a second round)?

Well head back to Ladurée to drown your equivocation in a Saint-Honoré Rose. We’ve ordered one for you in anticipation.

Sainte Honore Rose at Laduree, Paris France

You better claim it now, or I WILL eat them both.

Kick up your Heels

Disappointed that the nudity so far has only been in marble and watercolours? Tonight offers so much more, told through the art of dance at the Moulin Rouge.

The Moulin Rouge, light up in red lights at night in Montmartre Paris

Red Light District, then and now.

There’s no doubt Nicole Kidman’s film helped reinvigorate the fame of the Red Windmill, the Belle Epoque cabaret, the haunt of Toulouse-Lautrec (and it’s a little crass to mention the Australian film, though it seems half the dancers tonight are antipodeans!). But don’t come here expecting Ewan McGregor to sweep you off your feet: tonight is a cabaret, swinging frenetically from “dancey dance” to snake wrestling to laugh-out-loud mime (the latter being a speciality exclusive to France).

And since this is a family website, we can’t show you any stills from the dancing itself – just know that you can expect wall-to-wall topless dancers for most of the numbers in the two-hour main production.

Most of our group have glowing reviews for the Moulin Rogue spectacle – and also suggest that adding on the dinner package to make it a longer experience is definitely worth the extra investment.

Personally, I found the Moulin Rouge to be the most excruciating four hours of my life. Travel is all about leaping into the world with no regrets … but if I could change one thing, I would have skipped Moulin Rouge.

Especially if I could have had another Ladurée dessert instead.

Want to go? Need to know!

  • Macarons are best enjoyed fresh – though the ganache filling will keep them moist even as the exterior dries a little.
  • Avoid the Louvre queues by buying your €12.10 ticket online (note: you have to collect this in advance, most easily from the Virgin Megastore on the Champs Elysée). Plan your visit if you wish to experience specific pieces (like the Mona Lisa) without spending the whole day wandering the wings.
  • Reserve your Moulin Rouge tickets online – the show plus a half bottle of champagne is €105; add dinner and attend the earlier performance from €175. Or don’t, I’m just saying.

Calling all francophiles – what are your favourite experiences of Paris? Let all of our readers know in the comments below, or on our Facebook page.

Tangier to Casablanca, Morocco

By Jacob Aldridge

Yesterday, we observed how easily you can see Africa from our position in Tarifa, Spain.

Today, we prove it as we catch a ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar, from Europe’s most southern point to the city of Tangier (Tanger), Morocco – gateway to our weekend in Africa.

Ferry crossing the Strait of Gibraltar from Tangiers Morocco to Tarifa Spain

Ferry crossing the Strait of Gibraltar. Photos are copyright the author unless otherwise noted.

This Weekend’s Experience

We deal with immigration on the boat, so as soon as we arrive we’re onto our day in Tangier.

For a settlement that pre-dates the Roman Empire, Tangier is a modern, vibrant city. In fact, the population here grew by almost twenty times during the twentieth century, and its economy (as its reputation as a spy town during the Cold War) is maximised by its proximity to Europe.

Arabic stop sign photo, in Tangier Morocco

We’re not in Kansas anymore.

We’re here to explore the older parts of the city, however.

Rock the Casbah

The Casbah (or Kasba) is connected to the former Sultan’s palace, and creates a protected zone at the highest point of the town.

Entrance to the Casbah (or Kasba) in Tangiers (or Tanger) Morocco

Crowded entrance – we’re definitely going to Rock this Casbah!

As Westerners, here is the first place (at least, since we left Japan) where we have felt out of place. That’s in no way reflective of the locals here, who are particularly welcoming; it’s just recognition that the culture here, from architecture to religion, is more heavily influenced by the Middle East than it is by Western Europe.

English is very much a minority first language here. Even beyond the official languages of Arabic (more specifically, Darija – or colloquial – Arabic) and Berber, Morocco’s history includes governing by both France and Spain and therefore education in either French or Spanish. Compensating for this is the importance of tourism to the Tangier economy. Despite the uncertainty, here once again we found that English is today’s lingua franca and will generally suffice (when combined with patience, respect, and a smile) in most locations you’re likely to see as a traveller.

Whether it’s the welcoming disposition of the locals, or that importance of tourism, wandering through the Kasba feels safe and spacious. There is time and opportunity to breathe in the new sights and sounds that make this an experience.

We duck through an opening on the other side of the Kasba, and find this!

The Strait of Gibraltar - you can just see the Rock of Gibraltar

That’s the Strait of Gibraltar – you can just see the Rock of Gibraltar in the distance on the left

Of course, it makes sense that if we can see Africa from Europe then we would be able to stand on African soil and look over the Europe so easily.

Still, this is a breathtaking view – being able to witness two continents at once.

View from Africa to Europe.

As I said: Breathtaking.

Off to Market

Tangier is a popular daytrip from Tarifa, and a key stop is the markets. Everything from spices to leather-goods can be found here – and while the prices aren’t ridiculously cheap, there are plenty of bargains to be had for those willing to haggle as aggressively as the merchants.

Better still (at least for those daytrippers) is that almost every shop here will take Euros.

Our tip for market haggling?

  • Come in at 10% (yes, 10%!) of the price they suggest.
  • Recognise that this is natural, and part of doing business – you’re not being rude.
  • Never, ever regret a purchase. You are unlikely to find the lowest price the merchant will accept, but you will still do very well. Be happy with your price or don’t buy it, and if you buy it then forever be happy with your price!

For those of us who aren’t returning to Europe tonight, there’s even more opportunity to get horribly lost in these markets. Feel like refreshment? You’re unlikely to find a beer (easily) in this Muslim nation, but the hot mint tea is a must!

And then there are abundant opportunities to enjoy the local Moroccan spices as part of your evening meal.

Olive merchant at the souk market Tangier, Morocco

And olives! Wow are there abundant opportunities for olives!

Cave of Hercules

Saturday offers us a roadtrip day, as we head by car from Tangier along the 3.5 hours of coast road to Morocco’s largest city, Casablanca.

But our first stop is just out of town, where the ocean empties into a cave through an opening exactly the shape of Africa!

The Cave of Hercules, just outside of Tangiers / Tangier / Tanger, Morocco. Looks exactly like a cut out map of Africa.

Looks like Africa to me. Right? Photo by Alex Lomas, CC Licence

The Cave of Hercules – in mythology, the location where Hercules rested when his 12 labours were completed – is certainly large enough to contain his enormous strength.

With the tide rising, there’s opportunity (having followed necessary precautions) to swim here or jump from the ledge that forms part of the famous silhouette. In fact, the hardest part of the stop is finding a moment to photograph the cut-out cave so that Africa is obvious but the many other tourists are not!

Once we’re back in the car, there’s no need to rush – and plenty of reasons to stop and take in the water views. The nearby hills of Europe are gone – replaced with a seeming infinite ocean, North America not even imaginable beyond it.

Sunset over the Atlantic Ocean, from Rabat Casablanca between Tangier and Casablanca.

Sunset over the Atlantic Ocean, from Rabat Casablanca between Tangier and Casablanca. Photo by David Stanley, CC License

Play it Again, Sam

Casablanca may be the African city most famous in the west, but for all the wrong reasons. While the film Casablanca is legendary, the tale of Rick’s Café Américain and its love triangle (mirrored by the political triumvirate of neutral USA, independent France, and Nazi Germany) bears no relation to the modern city of 3.5 million people.

The Lighthouse in Casablanca Morocco, by night.

The Lighthouse in Casablanca, by night. Photo by Palindrome6996, CC license

Chief among today’s things to do in Casablanca Morocco is the Hassan II Mosque. The tallest building in Morocco and one of the largest Mosques in the world, a guided tour inside (and in English) is an opportunity to better appreciate and respect Islam. Sadly, the tour references but doesn’t show us the glass floor out over the ocean – this mosque was built largely over land reclaimed from the sea; 25,000 worshippers can here appreciate the Qur’anic verse “the throne of Allah was built on water”.

Hassan II Mosque - the tallest minaret in Morocco. One of the largest mosques in the world, the Hassan II Mosque can fit 25,000 inside and 80,000 in the courtyard.

Hassan II Mosque – the tallest minaret in Morocco. Photo by Papa Lars, CC License

There are plenty more souks to visit – if markets are your thing, head over to the Habbous District of town for even more shopping. You’ll find us enjoying yet another Moroccan tea in the Square of Mohammed V where the traditional flavours of modern Morocco blend with the historical colonial buildings.

No doubt, three days is only just enough to taste Morocco – and barely to scratch the top end of Africa. Based on what we’ve seen here, however?

This could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

Want to go? Need to know!

  • How quick is the ferry between Europe and Africa? With FRS ( it takes literally no time at all! (Which is to say, you arrive in Tangier at the same time you leave Tarifa, given the 1 hour time difference.)
  • The cave isn’t exactly Africa, but it’s pretty close. Africa also looks a little like the human skull – is that a coincidence for the continent that was the birthplace of humanity?
  • ‘Play it again, Sam’ is the most famous line Humphrey Bogart never said, a misremembering collective audiences have popularised through the 70 years since Casablanca was released. Perhaps the greatest movie of all time, Bogart’s final speech is now about 70% cliché – but the original source of all those incredible sentiments and sentences!
  • Had a chance to practice your French in Casablanca? You’ll need it this week…

Have any fabulous Moroccan memories? Share them for all our readers in our comments below, or over on our Facebook page.

London: three days in one

 [Chris writes: It was always going to be tough going up against Jacob’s Perfect Day in London in our informal London competition. I’ve taken the tactical decision to throw not just one of my perfect days in London into the ring – I’m throwing them all in.]

Day One: Epicurean London

The first perfect day in London focuses exclusively on the relatively recent and somewhat surprising revelation – the food in England doesn’t suck!

The Poms have, for years, endured as the world, and the French in particular, snorted and stuck their noses up at even the accidental placement of the word ‘England” in the vicinity of the word “cuisine”. Said the French President, Jacques Chirac;

“One cannot trust people whose cuisine is so bad”.


France has moved on from Chirac, but I suspect he still speaks for many of us when we contemplate English food. And how wrong we all are.

One only has to look at the constellation of British chefs and cooks dominating the television, the bookstore, the supermarket ailes, and your stomach, to know that this attitude towards British food cannot last long, if indeed it is an opinion still held at all. From Heston to Gordon to Jamie to Nigella to Rick to Antonio to Delia, there is no shortage of chefs promoting new cuisine in the country, and there are truly exciting places in Britain where artisanal isn’t a word artlessly tacked on by a hipster in marketing – it truly is.

We start our morning at one of those places, and my favourite place in London. We’re going to Borough Market.

Food Heaven is Borough Market.

From our London Perfect apartment in Notting Hill, it is a short trip from Notting Hill tube to London Bridge (Central Line to Bond Street, changing for the Jubilee line towards Stratford).

Borough Market has been in operation, in some form or another, since the 13th Century, and possibly earlier. It recently earned a blue plaque as “London’s Oldest Fruit and Veg Market”.

Today, it is spread over several blocks, showcasing fresh and preserved produce made by individuals who make things the old-fashioned way.

It is hard to believe how varied and exciting the produce is at Borough. From specialist cheese producers, to rare breed pig farmers, to the one guy who smokes his own salmon and scallops up near the Scottish border, you’ll not only find the ingredients of your dreams but usually be talking to the person who made them.

There’s lots to eat and drink, so don’t muck about.

First – go to the Monmouth coffee stand and get in the queue when you arrive at Borough. Even if it looks quite long now, it will get longer still at the day progresses.

Once you’ve grabbed your coffee fix, head over to the Jubilee Market to look at food producers selling everything from jams and preserves, to spices, to handmade dips and dukkah, and their own family recipe for salami and smallgoods. Circle back into Green Market for bread, pastry, and don’t forget to grab an empanada before you go.

It Is Always Time For Tea

Tea and the English will, possibly forevermore, be inextricably linked.

Can you believe that, each evening when The EastEnders finishes (a popular soap on television), the surge in electricity is so great that the company must actively manage the electricity supply, even gathering in electricity supply from France.

What is causing this massive electricity surge? Says the BBC;

No other country in the world switches on some many kettles in so short a time.

Each evening around 7 PM, 1.75 million kettles are switched on.

To honour this national obsession, we’re paying a visit to the Twinings store in the Strand.

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Thomas Twining, fighting a brave rearguard action against the overwhelming popularity of coffee houses, bought this coffee house back in 1706. In the early part of the 18th Century, tea began to rise in popularity and soon sales of tea from this store eclipsed the coffee business and Twinings was set on the path to tea-time domination.

Here you can buy the regular Twinings tea brands as well as shop from the Loose Lea Tea bar and individual teas for those famous Twinings compartments.

On to Marylebone for Brunch and Cheese

The Providores in Marylebone is one of those places you hear about in whispers and backchannels, because no-one wants to let the secret out – but this place is just too good. You only have to visit The Providores on a weekend for brunch to see the size of the queue and feel the crushing disappoint at forgetting to have booked.

An airy, modern cafe cum restaurant, there are two parts to The Providores – the Tapa Room downstairs, which is a busy free-for-all, and the quieter, slightly more formal dining room upstairs.

Both serve an increbile, eclectic ‘fusion’ menu that showcases the irreverence on the Kiwis and the cosmopolitan spirit of London. Current dishes on the lunch menu is a Smoked Dutch eel with butternut squash star anise puree, edamame, blood orange and macadamia nut salad and Sri Lankan spiced beef short-rib with pearl barley, raisins, almonds, mango chutney and coconut.

Remember to book your place.

Once satisfied, head out onto the Marylebone High Street and wander a bit further up towards Regents Park. You’ll smell our next destination before you see it, and depending on your palate you may love it or may find it slightly offputting.

The first time I entered the Cheese Room at La Fromagerie, I couldn’t quite take it all in. I was found standing in a corner of the room, gazing fondly at a block of Parmesan and inhaling deeply the potent scent of what I think was called ‘Stinking Bishop’.

With cheeses from Buffalo, Cow, Goat, and Sheep, and from all across England, the United Kingdom, and Europe, there just has to be a cheese here that you will find mind-blowing. Brie, Camembert, Aged Cheddar, Pecorino, Ricotta – breathe deeply and you’ll be entranced just like I was.

And before you leave this little slice of food paradise, pop into Patisserie Valerie for a raspberry tart fix.

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Breast Milk Ice Cream

Yes – that threw me the first time I read about it too. It is hard to determine whether choosing to sample this particular variety of ice cream goes one the ‘have-to-try-it-once’ list or on the ‘are’you-blooming-crazy’ list.

If you were up for it, we’d head to the Icecreamists shop in Covent Garden and have a red hot go. If it isn’t really your cup of tea (and let’s be honest, that’s probably 99% of you) then we’ll head to another Icecream treasure of London – unconventional too, though not in the same way.

Freggo, located just away from the ridiculous hustle and bustle of Regent Street and Piccadilly Circus, is an icecreamery par-excellence. You really will not be able to think of icecream the same way once you try their Malbec and Berries icecream in combination with a dark chocolate icecream. Yes, that’s wine in icecream and it works. Don’t miss this.

Come the Raw Prawn at Harrods

How are we doing for time? Quick – get in that tube!

Harrods, house of all things gaudy and excessive, happens to also have a very fine Food Hall. If you can get past the crowds and the over the top memorials and the purveyors of perfume, you’ll find yourself in something very closely resembling a playground for grownups.

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Look at the size of those prawns!

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Ok – it will be overpriced. But just sit yourself down at that counter and stuff yourself with jamon freshly carved from the bone with a razor-sharp knife by a smiling gentleman in an apron and enjoy it. You only live once.

More Tea, and a moment to regather

By now we’re feeling the afternoon dip hit hard, so it’s time for the citrus pep of a cup of Lady Grey and maybe a moment to catch our breath. At Claridge’s Afternoon Tea, they serve the ‘quintessential’ English afternoon tea, and having been practising the art for over 150 years, we’re sure to enjoy the full experience. As Spencer Tracey once said;

I’d rather go to Claridge’s than to heaven.

The Grand Finale, by the Master of Illusion

As if we have any room left in us by now. But we must, we must find some – a hollow leg perhaps. For tonight we dine at Heston’s.

Dinner, his restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental, is Heston Blumenthal’s first entry into the London market. With The Fat Duck solidly booked out months in advance, Dinner is our best chance to sample the cooking that has earned the self-taught chef three Michelin stars and to trade the Best Restaurant in the World title with Noma and El Bulli, depending on who you ask.

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The restaurant’s dishes are based on Heston’s deep research into historical cooking in English culture, and the dish at Dinner is the Meat Fruit. To all appearances, a mandarin, inside is a special surprise and I won’t be the one to spoil it for you. See if you can guess.

Day Two: Museum London

Not really a foodie? I hear you. Perhaps history and culture is more your thing?

One of the benefits of being an Empire is being able to amass, legitimately or otherwise, enormous collections of historical artefacts and trophies from across the world. England, being a particularly potent Empire, has quite the collection.

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Start at the British Museum. Of course, everyone else is starting there too, and there will be a big rush to get inside to the Rosetta Stone first. You can join the rush or head on upstairs to the Egyptian collection instead, and find your inner Indiana Jones amongst the mummies and hieroglyphs.

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Next, head to the London Museum. This place is little mentioned by most ‘travel experts’ and yet it tells a definitive story of the history of London, from ancient times through the Blitz, and to the heady days of Beatlemania and beyond, in entertaining and creative ways.

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Once you’ve finished the tour you’ll have a greater appreciation for just how central this city has been in the making of the world as we know it today.

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Head across the river to the Tate Modern.

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This titan of the art world, made from an old powerplant and solidly sitting across the Thames from the grand dome of St Paul’s, is a temple to modern and contemporary art and will have you up to speed on all your Modernisms and Post-Modernisms and Post-Modern-Pre-Minimalisms in no time at all.

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Just near the Tate is the reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.There are tours available, but why not come back when there is a play on. Standing tickets near the front of the stage as cheap as chips, although you will be exposed should the weather turn inclement, which in London is ‘frequently’.

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Finally, and it is a bit out of the way, but how could you miss the Museum of Natural History. For any adult who, as a kid, fantasised about becoming an archaeologist (so, all of you) this is the Aladdin’s Cave, the Nirvana, the Mecca of dinosaur-nerdery.

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Day Three: Countryside London

Food – meh. Museums – whatever.

Are you a nature lover, perhaps?

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If so, let’s grab the DLR and get on out of London. Head out to Richmond Park, where we can gambol to our heart’s content in a massive greenbelt of forest, rivers, and fields.

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We’ll take time to track down the deer herds that populate the Park, making sure not to get too close – especially in rutting season.

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After we have all the fresh air we need, we’ll make our way to the Petersham Nursery. Not only a nursery full of beautiful flowers like you can only grow in England’s mild and gentle climes, there’s also an amazing restaurant attached. If the restaurant isn’t open, head up to the Petersham Hotel for afternoon tea overlooking the upstream Thames.

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On your way back into London, hop off and explore Kew Gardens.

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There’s an exotic greenhouse there full of endless varieties of butterflies, and the photos you take will be beautiful.

Day Four: Get way out of Town

Your perfect day in London may actually be a day trip out of the city. There are plenty of coach tours to places like Bath, Warwick Castle, Stonehenge, and other little satellites around this city, but why not go self-guided. We’ll have a better time.

One possibility is Canterbury, which is only an hour by train and will fulfil all your fantasies about how a medieval English town may have looked and felt.

Another option, if eclectic and alternative if your thing, is Brighton. Full of people who look at the world a little differently, Brighton also contains perhaps the most incredible palace in all of England, if by incredible we mean ‘absolutely-completely-over-the-top’. Playboy George, Prince of Wales, turned the Royal Pavilion into the most fashionable seaside retreat for high-society members of the time, and it has the the most extravagant chinoiserie interiors ever executed in the British Isles.

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Brighton Pier will satiate your need to have a traditional English carnival pier experience, and if the stars align and the planets tilt and the world turns upside down, you may just might just may be able to go for a swim and not freeze to death.

But don’t count on it.


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So, there it is. Not one, not two, not three, but four different versions of what might constitute a perfect day in London.

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Please tell us yours!


Fresh Pina Colada in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

By Jacob Aldridge

Wednesday morning we wake, rested, after a sleep in – but there’s still time for one final walk along the Dominican Republic’s Punta Cana beach before we head to the airport. We’ve only got an hour in the air today, before touching down in Puerto Rico,  America’s unofficial 51st State, and the birthplace of the Pina Colada!

The House Where in 1963 The Pina Colada was created by Don Ramon Portas Mingot. Happy 50th Birthday La Pina Colada! You've been embracing 21st Birthdays all that time.

Happy 50th Birthday La Pina Colada! You’ve been embracing 21st Birthdays all that time. Photo by Mogdan Bigulski, CC License.

Today’s Experience

World politics is an irrelevant side-note for many travellers; for us, history is the context that imbues every aspect of a modern holiday destination’s culture.

For instance, the island was originally named San Juan Bautista and the main city was Puerto Rico – at some point in the centuries after Christopher Columbus arrived here (on his second voyage of discovery, in 1493) and the names were given, they became swapped, and so the city of San Juan is now the capital city of this island named Puerto Rico.

Looking out over San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Looking out over San Juan, Puerto Rico. Photo by Jeff Gunn, CC License.

An early 19th Century independence movement was put down by the Spanish crown without much resistance, unlike nearby Haiti which became independent from France – an outcome that still haunts them. Spanish rule would finally be overthrown at the end of the 19th Century, when the United States invaded during the Spanish-American war and was ultimately granted control (along with control of the Philippines and Guam, in case you’ve ever wondered why those far-flung archipelagos fall under American control). The relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States has continued to develop, to the point where just last year a majority of the citizens here voted for US Statehood.

The final steps to make Puerto Rico America’s official 51st State are now in the hands of the US Congress … not a government body known for moving with speed, although delicious debate about whether the Puerto Rican State would vote for Democrat or Republican Senators may encourage both sides to demonstrate some interest.

The walls have been here for centuries - the furry friend is a more recent introduction. There are no native Pandas in the USA.

The walls have been here for centuries – the furry friend is a more recent introduction. Photo by Ken and Nyetta, CC License.

Enough Politics – Let’s Dance!

Old San Juan is the focus of our ‘cultural’ evening. As a crucial trading port during the great age of sea warfare, San Juan was heavily fortified – the result today is Old San Juan, where walls and fortresses form part of the landscape, but never fully enclose you. To help us navigate these streets – and also choose from the stunning array of food available – we’re taking Flavours of San Juan’s ‘Signature Dinner Tour‘. Over 2.5 hours, we have a chance to learn more about the history of this city, starting with the Plaza des Armes where our tour begins along cobble-stone streets.

Plaza des Armes, part of Old San Juan Puerto Rico. This is the meeting point for our Flavours of San Juan's 'Signature Dinner Tour'.

Plaza des Armes, part of Old San Juan and the meeting point for our food walking tour. Photo by Roger 4336, CC License.

The food choices are spectacular. All in all, we plan to stop at 4 separate restaurants for a small course, an opportunity to sample the local cuisine … and also the local rum. Do not ask me to choose between the piña coloda and the mojito! (Although, on the food front, my vote goes to the bread pudding and local coffee at the last stop. Maybe you preferred the chicharones de pollo?)

An enticing matrix of Puerto Rican cuisine.

An enticing matrix of Puerto Rican cuisine – get into it. Photo by Gylo, CC License.

Dinner having satiated our hunger, and whet our appetite for more drinks, there’s only one more place to head – and that’s the nearby Nuyorican Cafe, where the live salsa music doesn’t even kick off until 11pm! Now the first step to dancing salsa … is to forget all of the steps you learned watching the Tango in Buenos Aires last week. Wonderfully, the salsa is a much faster-paced, social dance – different to the soulful, paired-up longing of the Tango.

Feel the energy of the Old San Juan night. Salsa dancing has a tradition here. There's a key difference between Salsa and Tango dancing - Salsa is faster and easier for beginners.

Feel the energy of the Salsa Dance. Photo by Ron Sombilon, CC License.

So as the night gets later, the band gets louder, the rum gets easier to drink, and the dance just gets faster and faster. And faster and faster and rum and band and louder and rum. And stamp those feet and laugh out loud – the first 50 states are going to have a lot of fun learning from their new partner!

Well, given the Pina Colada was created here in the home of rum, it would be rude not to have another.

Well, given the Pina Colada was created here in the home of rum, it would be rude not to have another. Photo by Valters Krontals, CC License.

Want to go? Need to know!

  • If you want to find your own restaurant – and eat a whole meal in one place like a normal traveller! – a good starting point is Forteleza St in Old San Juan. As always, look for the restaurant full of locals – if the chatter sounds Spanish, that sounds good; if it’s thick American accents ordering shots of Puerto Rican rum, avoid.
  • The Signature Dinner Tour runs daily, and costs $79 per person (that includes the two cocktails)
  • Puerto Rico considers itself the rum capital of the world. You’ve probably heard of some of their local drinks – Bacardi and Captain Morgan ring any bells? – but the true connoisseur looks well beyond those and orders a Trigo Reserva Añeja Rum, straight up.
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Photographing the Streets and History of Buenos Aires

There are some cities that sneak up on you.

When we’re travelling, it’s easy to get lost in the routine and details of logistics – got to be here by eleven, forty-five minutes then the 305 bus to the museum, don’t forget to grab a photo of that monument…this rush to see and experience everything you’ve been told to see and experience leaves you feeling a little like a game hunter bagging trophies on sight.

You own but you don’t understand.

Coming into Buenos Aires, we feel a little like the trophy hunter. We never realised how important Buenos Aires is, how large, how culturally diverse, and how many facets there must be to this ‘trophy’.

So on the way to Buenos Aires from Paraguay, we conduct a quick review of the quite hectic itinerary that had been meticulously mapped out, and free up some space to let Buenos Aires show itself to us.

Today’s Itinerary:

  • be guided by locals around lesser-seen streets for photographic trophies
  • visit the site of Argentina’s inspiring and bloody modern history
  • indulge in the cuisines that Argentina is famous for – wine and steak
  • head off into the good night air of Buenos Aires for late-night celebrations

Trophy Hunting in Buenos Aires

Photo by (M), Licensed under CC.

Photo by (M), Licensed under CC.

Photo by Ignacio, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Ignacio, Licensed under CC.

There are over 3 million people living in Buenos Aires, and over 15 million people living in the greater province that contains this city. With that many people, and this much history, there are sure to be interesting stories to find.

So whilst we are still going to be trekking around the city of Buenos Aires bagging photographic trophies, we’ll be doing it in a much more local fashion, and paying closer attention to the rhythms of this city.

We’ve organised a custom photography tour of Buenos Aires with Foto Ruta. They hold weekly tours that involve puzzles and clues, aimed at making you look at the world a little differently and inspiring your photographic ‘eye’.

As Tim wrote for the BBC;

For example, I joined Foto Ruta for one of their excursions on Halloween weekend, so all the clues had to do with Halloween. By following a clue called “haunted and holy”, I recognized the decaying and eerie characteristics of some of the older buildings in Monserrat (the chosen neighbourhood for this Foto Ruta event) and concentrated on capturing their “haunted” essence.

(Make sure to check out the great articles on Gringo In Buenoes Aires, his very detailed travel blog on Buenos Aires).

Photo by Nicolás Ancheta Curbelo, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Nicolás Ancheta Curbelo, Licensed under CC.

Today we’ve organised a custom tour because we’re in Buenos Aires midweek, and we’ve asked Foto Ruta to show us around the upmarket streets of Palermo.

The barrio (neighbourhood) of Palermo is worth a visit in it’s own right, featuring tree-lined streets, fashionable neighbourhoods, and the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (MALBA) containing hundreds of art works from twentieth-century Latin American artists.

Today, however, we’re interested in it for its stories.

Our clues have us scurrying about the streets, brows furrowed, and engaging the locals of Buenos Aires (called porteños for “people of the port”) in our quest. It’s a fun way to meet the people who live in the city, however briefly, and enjoy trying to bridge some of our respective cultural barriers.

Photo by Nicolás Ancheta Curbelo, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Nicolás Ancheta Curbelo, Licensed under CC.

Exploring the City

Although Argentina has a rich cultural history of immigration from European strongholds like Spain and Italy, and the respective architectural and cultural qualities to reflect these origins, its modern history is understood by the rest of the world to be linked to two main people, and to one of them in particular…

Madonna, as she is known worldwide…just kidding.

We all know Evita, even if the political history is a little more hazy than the lyrics to the song from the Evita musical.

We head down to the Plaza de Mayo, the main square in Buenos Aires.

It is in front of the pink house in this square, the Casa Rosado, that the working classes rallied in their hundreds of thousands to demand the release of Juan Perón in 1945. It is from this balcony that Evita rallied the people to the support of her and her husband, and it is from this balcony that the Juan made his last acrimonious public appearances.

The history (and frequently, the blood) of the people of Argentina is soaked into the stones of this square. Chillingly;

the plaza, since 1977, is where the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo have congregated with signs and pictures of desaparecidos, their children, who were subject to forced disappearance by the Argentine military.

But why is it pink?

An Argentinian president ordered it painted so as to symbolise the unification of warring political opponents – whose colours were red and white. Local legend states that the first coat of paint was made by mixing whitewash with blood from a bull.

The Argentinian Experience. Steak.

We’ve had many friends visit Argentina, and there’s one thing they won’t stop talking about.

The steak.

With recommendations from people who been there, and eaten their way across the countryside, this is one item that has to be on our agenda for the day.

The other is Malbec.

Along with Australa, New Zealand, and Chile, Argentinian wine has fought its way into the ranks of new world winemakers who are setting palates aflame in Europe. They’ve even been making Malbec icecream in London.

We head to dinner at The Argentine Experience. Don’t be put off by its initial appearance as a mass-produced tourist attraction featuring bad wine and tough steak. This experience grew out of the passion of four people who wanted to show and tell Argentinian culture, and began doing so in a tiny flat, before outgrowing that venue thanks to its popularity.

We’re in for a guided tour of Argentine cuisine and culture, including making our own empanadas, devouring steaks that have been specially prepared over 24 hours, and sampling some Malbec, then sampling some more Malbec, then sampling some more…did we mention the Malbec is unlimited?

The steak itself is ridiculous. Grass-fed beef is the right choice in general but the taste and texture of this steak, and the care put into its preparation, ranks it as absolutely one of the gastronomic experiences you have to try in life.

Main courses down, and with the table getting more raucous (the Malbec is unlimited, remember) our guides take the time to answer our questions about life in Buenos Aires and Argentina’s past and future, as they show us how to prepare Maté, and fill the last few gaps in our bellies with Dulche de Leche.

Dinner at 9:30, then the party starts at 12!

In Buenos Aires, they eat late. 9:30PM late. So prepare yourself with some snacks in the afternoon if you’re used to an earlier dinnertime – and a cheeky kip wouldn’t go astray either, because things don’t really get moving until around midnight.

Our hosts from The Argentine Experience point us in the direction of some local nightclubs, and wave us off smiling into the “good air” of Buenos Aires.

It’s going to be a good night.

Photo by Tiago Cata, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Tiago Cata, Licensed under CC.